Daun Kendig is currently a professor at St. Cloud State University where she teaches performance studies and directs a co-curricular performance group. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1987 with a dissertation on "Framing in Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples," which was directed by Joanna Maclay. In addition to her teaching she has published in journals, such as Anthropological Quarterly, and edited volumes, such as Eudora Welty: The Eye of the Storyteller.
It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught kancism and now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness. It was well known among the legislators that the faculty as a whole was determined to undermine the moral and commercial well-being of the state.... It was well known among the faculty that the governor and the state legislature had lost interest in education some twenty years before and that it was only a matter of time before all classes would be taught as lectures, all exams given as computer-graded multiple choice, all subscriptions to professional journals at the library stopped, and all research time given up to committee work and administrative red tape.... It was well known to all members of the campus population that other, unnamed groups reaped unimagined monetary advantages in comparison to the monetary disadvantages of one's own group, and that if funds were distributed fairly, according to real merit, for once, some people would have another think coming. -Jane Smiley, Moo, (19-20)
Don't get me wrong. St. Cloud State University (SCSU) is not Jane Smiley's "Moo U." Granted we are a state university, and yes, we are in the midwest, and I'll confess to occasional paranoia similar to that chronicled above, but we are certainly not a large research institution. And livestock? Well, maybe a symbolic hog, but he's looking pretty malnourished these days. Like their counterparts in many states, politicians in Minnesota are quick to identify themselves as friends to education, but if budgets are any indicator, we need to get new friends. In an essay which provided case studies of state fiscal policies in California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota, Steven D. Gold concluded that "higher education took the worst beating of any major spending category" (Breneman). In the state of Minnesota, that "beating" translated into a 12-15% reduction in funding with further cuts expected in the future (Connaughton). So as I look to the next millennium, I find myself considering the fiscal and attitudinal realities that programs at state institutions primarily dedicated to undergraduate education, must confront. What problems threaten our survival? What possibilities promise our well being?
The "1995-96 ACT Class Profile Report," of students attending SCSU validates many of my concerns. The vast majority hale from within one hundred miles of the institution and list location and cost as their top two reasons for enrolling here. They come from working and middle class families and know they will have to work to stay in school. My experience, confirmed in an interview with the director of the counseling center, indicates that a fair share of them will have to work multiple jobs. In addition, many of these students are the first generation from their families to attend college. Some have begun their own families, either as married or single parents (Bayne). The top choices for majors are highly pragmatic since many of these students have little financial security and need the promise of a good job upon graduation. For example, business and management are the most commonly identified majors followed by health professions.
Within this political and economic environment, disciplines with a strong liberal arts orientation, sucli as performance studies, occupy a subordinate position. Legislators, administrators, citizens, students, and even some faculty speak of higher education, particularly in undergraduate state universities, in languages variously described as instrumental, pragmatic, or even vocational. As Henry Giroux points out, 'We all know our educational system is tiered, some institutions are vocational. Others arc places of real learning, although primarily for the elite. Harvard will never define itself as an institution whose primary mission is the promotion of industrial growth!" (11). But those of us who do not teach at Harvard find that students approach our classes wanting to know what you "do" with it. How might they market this knowledge? How will they use it in a job? Even extra and co-curricular activities are often seen as resume builders first and foremost.
So, what is the future of performance studies in this environment? Despite this fairly grim economic and attitudinal picture, performance studies at undergraduate state universities can survive, perhaps even thrive, if we establish the visibility necessary to wield some control over the terms that define our value in this environment. What follows is a summary of strategies we have used at SCSU or are exploring for our program. These strategies are neither unique nor complete as a survival kit; instead, they encourage a dialogue with programs in similar situations.
Curricular Survival Strategies
While it would be elitist and naive to ignore the need to prepare these students to be competitive in the job market, it is short sighted and dangerous to assume that meeting that need is all we are about. In a speech to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, Anthony Carnevale argued that while we must provide students with "sufficient education to get and keep a job," we can not overlook our responsibility to a culture that values individuality to "cultivate habits of the heart and mind necessary to self possession and individual responsibility"; nor our responsibility to a political system based on consent "to develop the breadth of perspective necessary for citizens to make informed, collective choices" (4). Of course, Mr. Carnevale is preaching to the choir here. Our task is to convince the students, citizens, legislators, and even some of our own administrators and colleagues that our charge is more complex than simply getting students jobs. But then, we have the power of performance on our side.
At the curricular level, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to enroll students into performances classes as early in their programs as possible in order to correct the misconception that these classes are "just for fun" (i.e., "not vocational") and, therefore, only to be indulged in if there is an extra elective floating around. Once students get into performance classes we are usually able to dispel these notions, but too often they see a performance class as an interesting treat before they graduate rather than an integral part of developing creative and critical processes. In a similar vein, part of the description and goals for performance classes might include an explanation of the role these courses play in the student's education and in the university's mission as a way of confronting the instrumental argument directly and using it to our advantage. That discussion might be supported by information from systematic follow-ups conducted with former students. Again, rather than being reduced to the concrete, pragmatic behaviors often traced in assessment efforts, we need to consider the range of ways performance studies might influence a person's life beyond the classroom or a specific job. Carnevale argues that although our students know a great deal, they do not know how to use what they know (9). Making those possibilities more explicit, with support from former students, increases the likelihood that they will not only use but value the knowledge iultivated in performance classes. Finally, our place in the curriculum would be more secure if, in addition to classes devoted to performance studies, performance issues were integrated into overview theories and methods courses. While we may need to educate some colleagues before this integration can happen, the benefits to the department's curriculum, to the performance program's visibility, and to collegial relationships are obvious.
Co-curricular Survival Strategies
Our co-curricular performance group, PLAYERS, affords us valuable visibility beyond the classroom, and we do everything in our creative power to extend its reach. In recent years, the group has sponsored professional performers on campus both to demonstrate the power of good performance to reach audiences and to associate the activity with important cultural and political issues. For example, we sponsored Linda Park-Fuller's "A Clean Breast of It" as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To extend the reach, we sought other campus and community groups to join in sponsoring the performance. The process of persuading these groups to help out introduced them to the goals and methods of performance and increased the likelihood that they would attend the event. "A Clean Breast of It" drew valuable sponsorship from the campus Women's Center, Department of Speech Communication, Student Government, other student organizations (Speech Communication Club and Women's Equality Group), every college in the university (except business), as well as St. Cloud Hospital, and the American Cancer Society. While not every event needs to pull from a constituency this broad, pairing up with at least one other group has proven helpful not only for sponsoring outside performers but also in drawing new populations as performers and audiences to student projects. For example, PLAYERS has sought partnerships with areas such as creative writing, human relations, and health services.
Other groups have also sought PLAYERS' collaboration on relevant projects. For example, Continuing Studies requested a performance for a national conference on AIDS in rural America a few years ago which provided a valuable opportunity to educate and involve students in an important issue while showing the community what we have to offer. Last fall I received a telephone call from a former student who is now working for the National Marrow Donor Program, asking if PLAYERS would be interested in developing a performance that persuaded university students to register as marrow donors. Because the caller had never participated in PLAYERS, I asked what made her think of us. In a conversation every professor dreams of having with a former student, she said, "Because I took your classes and know how powerful performance can be in reaching people."
Through this project we have discovered a number of ways that the performance process serves students, the program, the university, and the community. From the outset Tami Spry and I gave the students primary research responsibility. Initially this meant trips to the library; then, long discussions puzzling together the science of marrow. This collaborative learning process fostered the students' eloquence and confidence in explaining marrow registration so that it worked its way into discussions in other classes, with families, and friends. This responsibility became the first in a long line of responsibilities that taught them the important vocational and life skill of taking ownership of a project. When the National Marrow Donor Program suggested volunteering at marrow donor registration drives as another form of research, the students leapt at the opportunity. They came back with moving stories of watching a family who needed a marrow donor, of meeting a marrow recipient, of explaining the registration process to anxious but committed candidates. They came back with funny stories of empathizing with door-to-door salesmen, of scanning the crowd for sympathetic faces, of contriving elaborate strategies for ferreting out the most likely prospects for registration. Some of these stories made their way into personal narratives, all of them made their way into other conversations with families, friends, classmates, and co-workers.
Soon we started interviewing people who were involved in the marrow donor process. As students talked to nurses and information systems designers, to doctors and public communication specialists, they were struck again and again by the passion these people had for their work. They started to revise their own goals and expectations for their careers to include this passion. Two of the students have now graduated and plan to volunteer with the National Marrow Donor Program in the hope of finding something more permanent in this arena. During the collaborative rehearsal process students exercised their creative and analytic skills as they solved problems, discovered new ways of doing things, and cultivated their empathic and interpersonal skills. While these are all touted as important vocational skills, here they were exercised to analyze texts, explore improvisational strategies, develop performance personae and create a group vision. As I write we are still collecting, sorting, improvising and planning. Our long range goal is a marrow drive on campus. As one administrator confirmed, "The university loves this sort of thing. It's great publicity." So the students get information, experience, a commitment to volunteerism, passion for a cause, interaction with professionals, glimpses of what work can be. The National Marrow Donor Program gets volunteers, registrants, a "new" and compelling way to communicate their message. The University gets ambassadors to the "real world" as the students volunteer, interview, and perform; and it may also get publicity from a donor drive. Finally, the performance studies program gets the visibility that allows us to define the terms of our value in this environment and is able to demonstrate to the University and the larger community what performance can do.
Performance studies is not simply capable but uniquely qualified to meet many of the cultural, political, and yes, even the economic charges of liberal education at undergraduate state institutions. But we must identify the ways we are doing so and make them visible to students, colleagues, administrators, legislators, and the public. While few of us expect to live high on the emaciated hog of undergraduate state universities, performance theory and method can help us survive, and even thrive, well into the next millennium.Works Cited
- Bayne, Robert. Interview. St Cloud, Minnesota. August, 1996.
- Breneman, David W. "Public Colleges Face Sweeping, Painful Changes." Chronicle of Higher Education. September 8, 1995.
- Carnevale, Anthony P. "Liberal Education and the New Economy," Liberal Education 82.2 (Spring, 1996) 4-11.
- Connaughton, Michael. Interview. St Cloud, Minnesota. July 1996.
- Giroux, Henry A. Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Smiley, Jane. Moo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.